Thursday, 23 November 2006

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He Liked to Imbibe the Old Booze; or, the True Crimes against Style; or, the Thesaurarial Tipping-Point If you ever want to enjoy the true crime genre, don't let this be your introduction to it. The artful construction and subtle characterizations will render the rest unreadable. I say this as someone whose standards for insomnious reading material rival those of an illiterate fourth grader. As dawn threatens to break, I want books with broad strokes and—in a perfect world—pictures. Gruesome, preferably, to assuage the animal instincts four sleepless nights can stoke. With this criteria in mind, consider this well-reviewed, highly-recommended "account of rape, torture and murder on the California coast." Broad strokes? Check. Pictures? Check. Gruesome pictures? Check. Sounds perfect, no? Not so much. This book contains prose so poor and so clichéd I initially thought it artful. How better to deflate the pretensions of a walking superiority complex with a penchant for folksy speech than to stuff sentences like "he liked to imbibe the old booze" in his head? Isn't that why they invented third-person omniscience? Alas, the effect is not intentional. If you count the number of appearances the word "drink" makes in the previous paragraph, you have raw data enough to begin a statistical analysis of what I'll call The Thesaurarial Tipping-Point. By which I mean, the number of times a word can appear before a writer is driven to thesaurize his prose like a penurious fornicatress. While the pressures of undergraduate life can partly explain my previous lexigraphical lament, from a well-published author in an award-winning book, such brobdingnagian pettifogging is completely unacceptable. Especially when the book in question is perused to extricate the reader from the pencil-in-hand, professorial pose of the professional English professor. Infelicitous prose alone is not enough to warrant condemnation. All the "penetrating of the soil" aside, this book would not be the literary cesspool it is without the death of a couple of clichés. What if the subject of a true crime novel imbibed a little of the old booze then raped, tortured and murdered Barbie? Wouldn't that be incredible? Well... Rachel [X] and Aundria [Y] had led lives of beauty, hope, and trust. They sought to better themselves in one of the most gorgeous locations in the entire United States. They had dreams and wishes they were on the verge of fulfilling. Instead, they ended up in shallow graves beneath piles of trash on one man's property. Can you believe that? These perfect girls led perfect lives. They would've married perfect husbands, birthed perfect children and won perfect divorces. Amazing how human they seem. Who better to marshal my sympathies for than people who exist only in the moment their deaths are reported on the local news? That I had more sympathy for the murderers in Capote's In Cold Blood than the victims whose last hours Corey Mitchell chronicles in Dead and Buried speaks to some sort of massive generic failure. I would say more, but I've whinged enough for one night...
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Dull, Dry Historicism, Eminent Medievalists, Literary Journalism and Rank Despair, Laughed Away [A response to Luther Blissett's comment instead of a post. Why? Because minutiae oppress me, words fail me and with every day the odds of my future career in real estate increase ever so slightly.] Part of the problem with our profession is that wowing gets jobs, but people need to fill in the details. So, for example, David Wallace's Chaucerian Polity is a brilliant book, but one Wallace couldn't have written without much of the "drudge work" accomplished by "lesser" scholars in the pages of Speculum. The profession needs both, but only recognizes one. (Not so true in medieval studies or early modern studies, but you see my point.) At times, the historicist critic is afraid to venture out of the realm of brute facts, because of the Hayden White conundrum: the belief that all narrative forms are "fictions" and so are lies. Well, I wouldn't call them "lies" but "creative transformations." What I'm interested in is the way people take this body of scientific knowledge and transform it to conform with preexisting beliefs, other bodies of thought (aesthetic theory, romantic individualism, &c.). So I'm uninterested in narrating events, because that's the realm of the historian proper. I think many historicists are intellectual historians who focus on shifts in thought as reflected in literature, i.e. Menand focuses on the Civil War's effect on William James' thought in The Metaphysical Club, whereas I'd focus on its influence on brother Henry. (Not that I am, just making a point.) That said, I still want to ground my accounts of shifts in thought to the material I've dredged up. For example, at a talk I attended recently, someone asked the speaker "Wouldn't it be reeeeeeeeeally interesting if the person you're talking about was familiar with this particular strain of theory?" "Yes," the speaker replied, "but I have no evidence that she was." The questioner followed: "Maybe, but could you speculate about what it would mean if she had?" The speaker obliged, but sitting there in the audience, I couldn't help but feel there was something deeply wrong with whole performance—and that "something" has to do with the oddity of historicist projects in literature departments. I'm still thinking about how to frame this, though, because it seems like it should be part of some larger conversation about the profession. Right now, it's an anecdote and an uneasy feeling but little more. Let's remember that "the non-fiction novel" is just an awkward way of saying "history." And historians have successfully negotiated the need to balance truth and meaningfulness for several centuries. I'm not buying that definition of the non-fiction novel. History, as a profession, had moved away from the techniques of fiction employed by the New Journalism because they were considered "unprofessional." While it may be another mode of "historical" writing, the concomitant commitment to truth and the storytelling was innovative. You had both present, in differing degrees, in something like Hersey's Hiroshima or Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel, only Hersey wasn't much...

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